Food for Thought-Adventures in Soviet Cuisine

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I do miss Soviet cooking. This much is true, from the Baltic to the steppes of Central Asia, I never went hungry in the former Soviet Union. I ate and I ate well. For some, this may be hard to imagine. Your minds may recall Brezhnev-era bread lines. Like cheerleaders at a Friday night football game, when I “food scarcity” you say “Ukraine”. Nothing could be farther from my experience. Of my many encounters with food, some on trains, some in snow drifts, others by the banks of the Neva, one dish defines these varied moments: borscht.

Borscht, like much of Russian culture, is misunderstood. When we in the west hear the word, “borscht”, we think one ingredient, the “beet”. While accurate in some contexts, the beet as the defining feature of borscht can be woefully misleading. Like any good soup, borscht is about a combination of time and ingredients working together both before and while the dish is prepared. Good borscht doesn’t just happen; it is passed down through generations of people and soil. The tiny counter in the Soviet kitchen represent the culmination of process culinary examination extending back centuries.

Unlike revenge, Borscht is a dish best served hot. In a cold country like Russia, hot soups are a staple of everyone’s diet. Hearty soups are more than liquid appetizers for a subsequent meal. The soup is the meal. The soup represents the work of the butcher, the gardener, the mother, the father, the children, and the grandparents-the entire village. The soup is the sum total of the labor which keeps the community alive.

Borscht must warm your body and mind. Borscht is a tool for surviving the harshest climate in the world. Each ingredient and the person who brought that piece to the chopping block contributes to your survival and you to theirs. As in the earliest moments of creation, it begins within the broth. I preferred the beef broth. The beef was more common in Russia. Some used a pig broth, depending on their dominant agriculture. To my American palate, my first inclination was to think of beef soup; but only for a fleeting instant. The experienced preparer of Borscht, usually mothers and grandmothers, know the ratios. Nothing is in cookbooks or written on scraps of papers. Yes, the beets give the dominant color and flavor. However, without the potatoes, carrots, or peppers, the flavor of the beet would overwhelm the taste of the entire dish. Borscht is about a harmonic balance of taste and smell, of vegetable and animal, of enjoyment and survival. Borscht defines the essence of the Soviet eating experience. I miss it greatly.